Thousands of people come through Seattle on cruise ships bound for Alaska via the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound every summer. They bring suitcases, cameras and a lot of raw sewage.

Western Washington’s treaty tribes are concerned about where these cruise ships dump their raw or treated sewage between the Washington coast and Elliott Bay.

Releasing raw sewage could lead to shellfish harvest closures, especially for geoduck.
Since the cruise industry in the Northwest has grown from 3,000 passengers coming through Seattle in 1999 to 300,000 passengers in 2005, the industry is starting to address those concerns.

Current regulations allow the vessels to voluntarily dump raw sewage four miles off the Washington coast, before entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. The Clean Water Act also allows dumping in Puget Sound if current restrictions are met, such as if the sewage is broken down and mixed with bleach.

Recently, some ships have installed highly effective advanced treatment plants to kill fecal coliform bacteria and viruses that thrive in raw sewage. Ships with these new treatment plants are allowed to discharge the treated water directly into Puget Sound.
While this means less pollution entering the water, tribes are concerned about the potential for shellfish bed closures, which are regulated by the National Shellfish Sanitation Program.

“Shellfish are central to tribal culture,” said David Fyfe, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission’s shellfish biologist. “Tribes are encouraged by the cooperation shown by the cruise ship industry on the efforts being made to keep Puget Sound clean.”

After working with the industry and state departments of Health and Ecology, the tribes’ concerns have been largely addressed in the current memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Ecology, Port of Seattle and NorthWest CruiseShip Association.

Protective steps include prohibiting ships from discharging treated wastewater within a half-mile of commercial or tribal shellfish beds; installing real-time monitors to detect problems with wastewater disinfection systems; and immediately reporting wastewater disinfection problems to Washington Department of Health. Fyfe expects this issue to be proposed as a bill in the next state legislative session.

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For more information, contact: David Fyfe, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission shellfish biologist, at (360) 598-6077 or dfyfe@nwifc.org; or Tiffany Royal, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission information officer, at (360) 297-6546 or troyal@nwifc.org.